When I look back at our time of potty training, I have to admit…I didn’t really know what I was doing! We just muddled through with a LOT of accidents, highs and lows and then one day…she got it! I won’t lie – I found it pretty stressful and downright farcical at times. But surely there has to be another way? In search of the answer of how to potty train without the drama I interviewed top parenting expert and creator of Gentle Parenting – Sarah Ockwell-Smith – who is also the author of a new expert guide called The Gentle Potty Training Book which promises to help parents understand when to start the process, and provides a step-by-step guide to the most effective, gentle, and compassionate approach to potty training, as well as how to cope with inevitable setbacks along the way.
Why do so many parents find potty training to be a stressful time?
I think stress when potty training comes predominantly from one, or often both, of the following:
Starting too early
If you start potty training before a child is both physiologically and psychologically ready, then chaos is going to follow. Children need a number of physical developments to be complete before their bodies are able to consciously control going to the toilet, training before this is like trying to train them to walk at only 3 months of age – biology can’t be rushed! Similarly, if the child is not emotionally prepared adequately, ie they want to get out of nappies, not just you wanting them out of nappies! then it’s never going to go well. Far too many parents feel pressured into potty training because of comments from friends, family, childcare workers and so on. It can be hard to feel like the only one in your mummy group with a child still in nappies, but that’s absolutely not a reason to train. Similarly, buckling to pressure from your nursery, or childminder if your child isn’t ready is going to create one heck of a stressful experience. Finally here – pushing for potty training because it’s summer is never going to end well if the child isn’t ready, no matter how many lovely sunny, naked days you can have in the garden!
Expecting too much, too soon
I think a lot of parents forget that potty training is a learning process. When we learn things we make mistakes, lots of them! A potty training toddler is going to have LOTS of accidents, for many weeks, months and even years to come and that’s OK! They are still learning. They have to learn to listen to their body’s sensations, they have to learn how long they can wait and how long they can postpone going, they have to learn what it feels like to be properly wet (something they usually haven’t felt before, especially if they are in disposable nappies), they have to learn what poo looks like when it’s not squished in a nappy (yes, really!).
These accidents might seem like a negative thing to parents (and I totally understand it’s not fun cleaning them up!), but actually – they are incredibly important to the child. Mistakes are ultimately what lead our learning. Expecting to potty train and to have minimal accidents is just going to cause a great deal of stress and disappointment all round.
We hear a lot about looking out for signs for when a child is ready to potty train, but what’s your advice on this?
There are two elements of readiness. First, the child has to be ready physiologically. ie their bodies need to be developed to a certain point. This is simple biology and something that can’t be rushed. Their bladders need to develop enough to hold a certain amount of urine, they need to develop conscious control over the muscles that squeeze out pee and poo and those that hold it in. Their hormone production needs to develop to a point where they can make it through the night without needing a pee.
Most of these physical developments happen by the time the child is around 20 to 30 months of age. In addition, the child needs to have a well functioning digestive system, no issues with constipation or urinary tract infections, a good diet and a healthy microbiome (gut bacteria). If this isn’t the case, potty training won’t go well.
The other element of readiness is psychological. That means the child is intrinsically, or internally, motivated to lose the nappies. They need to be excited, free of fear and anxiety and able to really understand what is going to happen and importantly, communicate their needs to you. There is an element of age here, if they are too young, they just won’t understand or be able to communicate sufficiently. Mostly here though, this is the result of preparation work, done by the parents, in advance of starting to potty train.
For the easiest potty training possible, you need both physiological and psychological readiness.
What do you advise is the best way to start potty training?
Before you start, you need to work on your child’s diet, making sure they have sufficient fibre in their diet and eliminating any constipation. I’d also make sure their microbiome is as optimal as possible too. Then you have the emotional preparation to do – so things like talking with your child about it, sharing potty related books, watching films and video clips, shopping for pants and potties together and so on. It’s really important that they accompany you to the toilet too, watching you pee and poo, looking in the toilet pan when you’ve finished, discussing where it goes when you flush and so on.
After this it’s all about the physical preparation – protecting floors and furniture, setting up a ‘potty training station’, getting together some potty training friendly clothing and devoting two or three days to getting going, where you have no interruptions or other things to focus on.
What are some common potty training problems and how can parents overcome them without the drama?
The top three problems I come across are:
Where they hold on to the pee or poo for too long. There are a multitude of reasons why this happens, but the most common ones are that a. they actually don’t need to go!, b. the parent is over-prompting (ask no more than once per hour, preferably less!), c. you haven’t done enough emotional preparation and they’re scared or d. it hurts to go – or they remember it hurting, perhaps because of previous constipation or a UTI.
Accidents/getting to the potty too late
I’ve discussed previously, how important accidents are. They are not a bad sign, just the child learning. Part of potty training is the child learning how long they can hold on before they HAVE to go. In the beginning they tend to miss time this and leave things too late. Especially if they’re engrossed in play. Here, it’s the parent’s role to help the child to learn their body’s signals, but not over-ride them by over-prompting.
The child losing interest, or refusing to train
This is common around day three. Initially potty training is fun, but that novelty soon wear s off, especially if they’ve had lots of accidents and even moreso if they sense your stress when they have accidents. The refusal often kicks in when they child begins to pick up on your stress, they’ve been scared by your reaction to an accident, or they feel disappointed that they are not doing well. Your response here is key, this is why you should always stay calm and supportive when they have an accident and stay encouraging when they have a near miss.
What are your absolute golden rules for potty training?
My top five tips (I hate the term ‘rules’) are:
1. Wait until the child is physiologically and emotionally ready – don’t buckle to pressure to train from anyone
2. Stay calm at all times, especially when you don’t feel it! Never tell your child off for an accident.
3. Hold the rewards, stickers and praise. These override the child’s innate drives to potty train and can make them miss their body’s cues. Research has shown that they don’t speed up potty training, but can cause more problems with it. A ready child doesn’t need any bribery to potty train!
4. Think long-term. Accidents will happen. Despite the promise of many books and plans to ‘train in 3 days’, potty training is a long-haul thing. If you must measure ‘success’ aim for 14 days. Otherwise you’ll give up prematurely and lots of stop/start training is really not great, for you or your child.
5. Stay consistent. Don’t go back to nappies after a few days. Trust that your child is ready and go for it.
When the going gets tough in potty training what should parents do?
Remind themselves that their is still learning and mistakes and learning go hand in hand. Remember that your child is not having accidents to spite you. They are a little child doing their best. Trust them, trust that they will do it and trust they you’ve got going at the right time, remember that ‘success’ is not a short term thing. Stop trying to assess every day and think longer term. Above all else though, stay calm. Your child is always watching you. If you lose your temper or show your anxiety or stress, they’re going to pick up on it!
If there’s only one thing parents should know about potty training successfully it should be…?
That they are the key! How you think and behave will have a direct impact on the child. The best potty training happens with a well-informed, calm parent, who works as a team with their child.
Are you feeling more nervous about potty training than your child? What do you think of the advice offered above? Do leave a comment and share. In the meantime, here’s to a calmer, simpler approach to potty training.
*The Gentle Potty Training Book is the UK edition of the book, the USA/Canadian edition is called Ready, Set Go – all available from Amazon in the respective country.